Talking Bout the Biennale

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I grabbed lunch today with Rob Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art and director of the upcoming Venice Biennale, the first American invited to fill that job. (For the record, there was an earlier Biennale directed by an Italian who became a U.S. citizen just before it opened.) The Biennale, of course, is run along the lines of a world’s fair. Each participating nation — there’s a record 77 this year — has its own exhibition, which is generally devoted to a single artist. (And usually a living artist, though the U.S. pavillion this year is devoted to Felix Gonzales-Torres, who died of AIDS in 1996.)

Among other things, the director curates the big international show that’s mounted at the Arsenale and in the Italian Pavillion at the Giardini. Storr’s will be called “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind”, and it will concentrate on art that is, as he puts it, both conceptual and perceptual, built upon the foundation of an idea, but executed with the intention of producing something visually interesting. Here’s a bit of what we talked about:

Q: What exactly does the director of the Biennale do?

Storr: The mandate of the director is essentially to make the international component of the exhibition in the Italian Pavillion and in the Arsenale’s artillery area. In many contexts I’m also the voice of the Biennale, artistically speaking, and I have a sort of gentlemen’s oversight of the so-called collateral events, which are exhibitions that have official Biennale recognition. These include curated exhibitions sponsored by foundations and also some local events — for instance, the art school puts things on. I’ve dealt with these things with a very light hand. I’ve only ruled out something that was really awful or things that were totally commercial propositions.

And then I made a decision on my own, and the board approved it, to hive off a third or half of the Artillery section to create three pavillions that would incorporate into the core of the Biennale regions or nations that have not been represented before. We offered space to India and to Turkey. And I also opened space to curators to make a show of African artists and artists of the African diaspora. My aim was to make sure that anyone who went to the main events of the Biennale could not fail to find these shows.

Q: You hear it said that the 90s was the era of biennials, but this is the era of art fairs. What exactly is the Biennale for?

Storr: Biennales are for the general public. Art fairs are for the informed art public and also of course they’re business propositions. Biennales are a crash course in contemporary art, a place where the general public at a relatively low cost can come and find out what’s going on in the world. In my mind the real audience for the Biennale are students and travelers who have sufficient income to make a trip to Italy and who don’t have access to much contemporary art at home.

Q; What’s attendance like for Venice?

Storr: Well, the Biennale goes on for seven months. The art world comes for the opening just as the summer heat has started to rise. The drop off in attendance after that is precipitous and lasts all summer. Then with September and October — with the nicer weather — the audience rises again. I think the last Biennale had between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors. But attendance has sloped off over the last decade or so. I’m not sure why.

Q: Does it make any difference for the director to be an American?

Storr: It makes a difference perceptually, because America has been, in terms of markets, exhibitions and publications, the 300 pound gorilla. It’s not in the place where it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s but it still weighs in very heavily. So if you are an American you’re seen as part of that sizeable American art world. And America’s role in the world generally means there’s also a lot of speculaton about what does an American think about this or that. My show at the Biennale is not necessarily a political show, but there’s a good deal of work about geographical displacement and about war.

Q: What’s going to be different about that show?

Storr: I’m trying to make a show that can be read as a show, that is textured in a way that somebody coming into it at any point begins to pick up certian qualities in one work that they will see in other works. Because of the maze-like quality of these pavillions that’s not as easy as you might think. You can’t do what you would do in a regular museum context where you have much more control over the space.

The underlying premise of the show is that there has been a division between the conceptual and the perceptual, between the “criticality” crowd and the beauty crowd. The argument of the show is that first rate work is always both conceptual and perceptual and the artists making art are far less concerned with these divisions than people who write about them.

It has about 96 artists. A larger number of Americans than I would have expected going into it — about 22. But there are quite a lot of Brazilians, quite a lot of Latin American art, a lot of Chinese art but none of it paintings, and quite a lot of art from the Middle East. There’s a fair amount of painting in it — Richter, Ryman, Kelly, Susan Rothenberg, and a lot of younger painters. There’s a larger amount of painting than there has been for some time.